By Chris Kieffer
TUPELO – Mississippi students will spend more time studying texts this school year.
They also will do more writing, specifically on assignments that require them to make arguments and to back them up with evidence.
As the new school year begins this week in many Northeast Mississippi school districts, the state will enter its first year of fully using the Common Core State Standards. The new guidelines for math and language arts instruction will be used by 43 states, plus the District of Columbia this year. Although most Mississippi schools used them last year, this is the first year during which their state tests will be based on the Common Core.
The new standards will significantly change two of the hallmarks of education – reading and writing instruction. They are designed to better prepare students for the skills they will need for college and for the workforce. That means more nonfiction reading and less writing about what students did during the summer, for instance.
“The reality is you read nonfiction pieces differently,” said Ellen Shelton, director of the University of Mississippi’s Writing Project, which provides training to teachers. “We need to train students on reading closely so when they get a job like yours or mine, they know how to closely read that memo or that contract, can analyze what argument is being presented and how that writer is presenting that argument and think about who is the person writing.”
The standards require a growing amount of nonfiction texts as students get older. This will not eliminate literature, educators say, since students also will be able to meet the guideline with nonfiction they will read in social studies and science classes. But even English classes will see more letters, speeches, essays, biographies and journalism.
“We have to prepare students to succeed in the real world,” said Booneville Superintendent Todd English. “…That is not to discount the importance of the classics. By reading the classics, you are expanding your educational horizons and opening yourself to new experiences, but the average person we teach, the person businesses are saying we need to start producing, has to be able to read and determine what is important now at this point and to be able to solve this problem.”
Students may read a novel and compare it to a modern-day article or may contrast two competing opinion pieces. They also will spend more time on what they read, working through it multiple times to discern a writer’s intent. The shift, Shelton said, is designed to make students better thinkers, training them to read through a critical lens and to discern meaning.
“You may see fewer pieces of literature over the course of the year, but we will go much deeper with closer reading,” said Lee County School District Chief Academic Officer Kathy Mask.
Students will write more often too, and assignments will be closely connected to what they are reading. Gone will be prompts to write about what they got for Christmas or how they spent spring break, said Lee County School District Student Services Director Leigh Anne Newton, who spent the past 16 years teaching seventh-grade English in Guntown.
Instead, pupils will be asked to analyze a writer’s argument or compare the purpose of two different texts. They will be required to cite evidence from the texts to support their arguments.
“The reality is most of our kids need to know how to write argumentative texts,” Shelton said. “Whenever you are writing a memo, you are asking for something.”
Grammar will be taught less as a stand-alone subject, said Leigh Mobley, executive director of curriculum and instruction for the Tupelo Public School District. Instead, it will be woven into writing assignments. Rather than asking students to underline a noun and circle a verb, she said, they will have to “utilize all of the grammar rules in your head to write well.”
“Grammar will be more integrated, and that will be hard for some English teachers,” Mobley said.
In many cases, English classes will be longer, too. Tupelo and Lee County have each created “double English blocks” in some of their grades or schools, allowing for, say, 90 minutes of continuous instruction instead of 50. Many other schools have done the same.
“You need to go deeper,” Newton said. “You need to read a passage, determine its purpose, compare it to a video or art work, write about it, make a clear argument and go back to that. You couldn’t get it all done in 50 minutes.”
Nonetheless, Mobley said, the principles of good teaching will remain.
“The message is that everything we’ve known will go out the window, and it won’t be that way,” she said. “Good teaching is good teaching.”